NHS credit unions can offer staff cheap loans and a way to bypass undesirable lenders, but their numbers are still low, writes Barbara Millar

Of the 624 credit unions registered in Britain, only a handful have been set up for the benefit of NHS staff.

The first workplace credit union in Scotland for NHS workers was launched recently at Southern General Hospital trust, the aim being to expand it over time to take in all NHS staff in Greater Glasgow.

But its chair, Robert Rae, is at a loss to explain why there are so few credit unions in the NHS, particularly compared with local government.

'Glasgow city council's credit union has 12,000 members and is flourishing,' he says. 'We felt it would be good to offer the facility to hospital staff, particularly given the number of low-paid workers we have.'

Members of the Glasgow NHS Employees Credit Union, who include nurses, doctors, administrative staff and ancillary workers, pay a£2 joining fee and must save a minimum of£1 per week.

One or two are already saving as much as£150 a month. After 13 weeks, members are eligible to apply for a loan, which can be up to twice the amount they have saved. Repayments are taken directly from wages.

'I feel anything that can help low-paid workers to save from their wages and to get a loan at a low interest rate has got to be beneficial,' says Mr Rae.

'Credit unions encourage people to take control of their finances.'

In particular, he adds, it helps them to avoid the loan sharks, especially the 'legal loan sharks who operate from high street shop fronts'.

The Glasgow union has 330 members already and is still growing. Mr Rae hopes to include Greater Glasgow health board staff and those at the Victoria Infirmary before too long.

There has been support from trust managers and Unison, which came up with a£500 donation. The trust gave 20 volunteers 10 days' paid time off for training, an office, a computer and money towards computer software.

Pat Hartshorn, secretary of the George Eliot Hospital Credit Union, Nuneaton, which has been going for 18 months, admits it can be hard to get volunteers to run a credit union.

'We are running with the minimum number of officers at present.'

With just 120 members the credit union is not big but is growing slowly, she adds. 'People are just beginning to realise the benefit of it.'

The George Eliot union lends members up to three times the amount they have saved, with the biggest loan to date being£1,700, 'but most are more like£200-£300 for a washing machine', says Ms Hartshorn.

A credit union operating at Bridgend and District trust in Wales has 375 members, and last year loaned around£100,000.

But the credit union still has a long way to go in attracting members, given that the trust has 3,500 employees, adds assistant treasurer Sue Thompson.

'I think that the fact that a credit union is a non-profit-making co- operative venture - offering cheap loans and an easy way to save through automatic payroll deduction - is just not getting through in the NHS,' she says.

'Yet once people join up they tell us the scheme is great.'

Association of British Credit Unions, 0161-832 3694.